The Matrix, liberal education, and other splinters in the mind.

Author:Malcolmson, Patrick
Position:Critical Essay

Here are superbly imaginative treatments of logical principles, the uses and meanings of words, the functions of names, the perplexities connected with time and space, the problem of personal identity, the status of substance in relation to its qualities, the mind-body problem....


This passage is taken from Roger W. Holmes's "The Philosopher's Alice in Wonderland." (1) Holmes discusses a number of philosophical problems, which appear in a variety of forms in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. He delights in the pedagogical potential of Lewis Carroll's work: "Most often Carroll uses the absurd hilarity of Wonderland to bring difficult concepts into sharp focus; and for this gift teachers of logic and philosophy have unmeasured admiration and gratitude." (2) Writing in 1959, Holmes might well have been able to expect that many, and perhaps even most, students would have read one or both stories before arriving at university. Drawing upon the fantastic comical examples from Carroll's books, a teacher of philosophy and literature might both instruct and delight students, drawing them into a deeper discussion of questions and ideas, and initiating the journey that is liberal education.

A professor today teaching first-year students cannot realistically expect them to have read Carroll's books. In fact, it would be difficult to name any particular book students could be expected to have read. And yet a shared set of images and characters that can be used for talking about important ideas and questions continues to be an invaluable pedagogical tool. Teaching now seems to require turning to contemporary popular culture. As Paul Cantor observes, students will enthusiastically provide serious and insightful comments on popular television shows which "provide students today with whatever common culture they possess," and he reminds us not to be dismissive too quickly: "much of popular culture may be mindless entertainment, but we should be awake to the possibility that in what a former FCC chairman Newton Minow once famously called the 'vast wasteland' of television, oases of quality and maybe even of thoughtfulness can be found." (3) Popular culture frequently provides the rough and ready equivalent of shared texts. Much of it may be primarily entertainment, but it is at least dependable. For you can count on students' all having watched a good number of the most popular current and syndicated television shows. They know the most popular music and have seen the top selling movies, often watching some of them numerous times on video.

Many such "texts" are of limited use. Their treatment of difficult and complex ideas is often superficial or contradictory. Moreover, they at times simply retail the conventional moral and political teachings of the moment. (4) This said, popular culture can provide some of what is necessary for beginning to educate students. As Cantor suggests, "If students can learn to reflect on what they view in movies or on television, the process may eventually make them better readers of literature.... By being selective and rigorously analytical, one may be able to lift popular culture up to the level of high culture, or at least pull it in that direction." (5) The popular movie The Matrix is an exemplary case in point. (6) Its intimations that there is something much more interesting than popular culture make the film a potentially valuable tool for teaching. While not a candidate to replace the Alice books, the film can be engaged to raise significant philosophical questions and to begin a more profound discussion of the purpose of a liberal education. The film's merits in this regard are substantial. It can thus serve as a portal for students, through which they can pass from popular culture to culture simply--the equivalent of leaving the subway and ascending into the sunlight.

A great deal has already been written about The Matrix as film, as popular culture, as it connects with contemporary philosophy (particularly the work of Jean Baudrillard). Our interests are more modest. We are concerned with the pedagogical usefulness of The Matrix for introducing students to earlier philosophers and to some of the big questions of importance to anyone embarking on a liberal education. Our intention is to suggest The Matrix as a starting point on this lifelong journey, not to be dismissive of other aspects of the film, while recognizing that it is hardly the entire journey in itself.

The Matrix is a densely allusive film drawing on a wide range of sources: other popular movies, contemporary science fiction, Greek mythology, and numerous works of literature and philosophy. (7) Interviewed by Time Magazine, co-director Larry Wachowski suggests that he and his brother were interested in creating something more than the typical action film: "We're interested in mythology, theology and, to a certain extent, higher-level mathematics.... All are ways human beings try to answer bigger questions, as well as The Big Question. If you're going to do epic stories, you should concern yourself with those issues. People might not understand all the allusions in the movie, but they understand the important ideas." (8) Though viewers of The Matrix may not apprehend all the allusions, the Wachowski brothers clearly expect some of the allusions to be familiar at least some of the time: "[s]ince allusions are not explicitly identified, they imply a fund of knowledge that is shared by an author and the audience for whom the author writes." (9) The film is an enjoyable action movie. That these allusions are used in a fast-paced, glossy action movie with heroes in cool clothes makes The Matrix that much more intriguing for students. For just as the main character, Neo, is driven to understand the Matrix by his sense that there is more to life than the world he has apparently grown up in, so students are excited by the possibility of understanding the allusions which allow them to appreciate the movie on a different level.

Our argument does not turn on whether, as Slavoj Zizek contends, many of the interpretations of the film are in fact "pseudosophisticated intellectualist readings that project into the film refined philosophical or psychoanalytical distinctions." (10) We are concerned primarily with the usefulness of the film as a way to bring students to appreciate that their education can make viewing such films more interesting and intellectually pleasurable. Read Mercer Schuchardt suggests "[o]ne of the perpetual pleasures of The Matrix lies in the fact that, unlike the majority of what Hollywood puts out, this film does not insult the viewer's intelligence.... It is a pleasure that increases with time, because you see more and get more out of it with each viewing." (11) At the same time, we would hope our students could eventually see that studying the works that have provided the sources of the film is, in most cases, more interesting than the film itself. (12)

Studying a film like The Matrix in some detail, and in relation to other texts, has a number of pedagogical merits. To begin with, The Matrix provides a wonderful jumping off point for introducing students to the ideas of intertextuality and the conversation that goes on between and among poets, artists, and thinkers within a culture, between cultures, and across the ages. When they see the connections between a film like The Matrix and works such as Alice in Wonderland, the Bible, the Republic, and Descartes' Meditations, their appreciation of the film is greatly enhanced. The pleasant experience of discovering that there is much more than first meets the eye is essential to liberal learning.

Coming to see a film like The Matrix in terms of its intertextual connections can, and should, lead to more than simply the realization that film has a literary and cultural context. More importantly, it allows students to begin to develop a perspective from which they can make judgments about popular culture. From there they can develop a broader and more critical perspective, based upon having come to understand something more, about and from, these texts. Quite possibly they may then learn that, upon even further thought and examination, there is less than meets the eye. This dialectical journey from The Matrix as "great action flick" to the film as a "great" philosophical and literary text, to the film as perhaps a somewhat contradictory pastiche of images and ideas is the upward dialectical journey of liberal education.

Finally, the film as a whole and particularly the experiences of its hero, Neo, offers a useful starting point for a discussion of the philosophical questions essential to liberal education. Such questions are psychological as well as metaphysical. The cast of characters invites a discussion of human nature, virtue and vice, and human psychology. The film's arresting depiction of liberating education as a difficult process of periagoge or "turning around" offers us an analogy with the experience of our students. Most are intrigued. In Socrates' allegory of the cave, liberation does not come as a momentary flash of insight, or an epiphany, but as a process or journey upwards and outwards. Neo, too, must undergo a similar process.

The Plot of The Matrix

The Matrix is set about two centuries into the future. Having created artificial intelligence (AI), the human race soon found itself overtaken and subjugated. The machines began to take control, and war against the machines ensued. (13) In their desperate attempt to starve the machines of the power source of sunlight, a sort of nuclear winter was created, and the earth became a desert wasteland. AI coped by enslaving human beings, growing them in pods and harvesting the energy produced by human metabolism. Human beings are thus grown and harvested in vast energy pod farms, while they unknowingly live out their lives in a computer programmed virtual...

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